How Can Tevye Forgive Menachem Mendl? On Betrayal, Theft, and Forgiveness in Sholem Aleichem’s “The Roof Falls In”


There is nothing worse than betrayal. But there are different degrees of betrayal. Some forms are worse than others. The worst violation of trust occurs when the person who is the betrayer is a close friend or a relative.   The stakes are especially high when the entrusted party is approached by a family member or friend who puts his livelihood, wife, and children on the line. Such a betrayal can destroy a person’s outlook on life and make him or her cynical and bitter.   In betraying trust, one destroys or seriously damages hope…and humanity.

Judaism, to be sure, is based in large part on the notion – germane to “covenantal theology” – that the relationship between the Jewish people and G-d (the covenant between them) is based on trust that neither party will ever betray the other. There is a trust, built into Judaism, that G-d promises and delivers. What makes the Torah so special is the fact that, from start to finish, there are trust issues between the Jewish people and God. As Moses Maimonides and other Rabbinic scholars have noted many times, God is constantly, throughout history, testing the trust of the Jewish people.  But there is a twist. Even though trust may be damaged or even destroyed in the relationship between man and God – which we see throughout the Torah, as in the story of Yosef – forgiveness is possible, trust can be re-established, and promises can be renewed. This works with God and man. But when it comes to betrayal and forgiveness between human beings, it’s a more complex matter.

In Sholem Aleichem’s “The Roof Falls In,” which is a part of Tevye the Dairyman, we see the playing out of trust, betrayal, and forgiveness between Tevye and Menachem-Mendl.   As many people know from Fiddler on the Roof or from a cursory reading of Aliechem’s most famous book, Tevye is the epitome of the honest, poor, and simple everyday Jew. He is a G-d fearing man who, in his kindness, gives every man and woman a chance.   However, there is a very important chapter (short story) in Tevye the Dairyman which shows Tevye in the most uncharacteristic way – as a cynic.

The story starts off in the wake of a betrayal by his “relative, Menachem-Mendl…a fly-by-night, a who knows what, a wheeler-dealer, a manipulator, may he never find a resting place”(23).   Menachem-Mendl’s betrayal shifts Tevye’s view of life.  Aleichem, by way of these characters, takes his readers through his betrayal of Tevye and leaves us to judge whether or not the conclusion of the tale – and Tevye’s decision – is just.

Tevye starts off his tale on a bitter note. He points out how poor he was and how he had to sell everything he had in order to support his family but…it’s simply not enough. He is in a dire situation and he imagines – as he usually does – what good he would do if he actually had money:

Having sold everything and thrown some hay to my horse, I decided to take a stroll around town. As it is said, Man is but dust – a man is only human. I wanted to see a bit of the world, breathe the air, and look at the find good that Yehupetz displays in its shopwindows….Standing just like that at a large shop window with a pocketful of cons and ruble notes, I thought, God in heaven! If I had a tenth of what I see here, I would never complain to God again. I’d make a match for my eldest daughter and give her a good dowry….I’d see to it that the house of study had a metal roof, not a roof about to collapse any minute. I’d open a religious school in town and hospital and a shelter…so poor people wouldn’t have to lie around on the bare floor of a house of study. (24)

In the midst of his dreaming of the good he will do for his people, he is startled – or rather awakened – by a voice:

Sholem Aleichem, Reb Tevye!” I heard someone call from behind me. “How are you?” (24)

The voice is of his “second cousin once removed,” Menachem-Mendl. After doing their Jewish geography, Tevye embraces him as he would any family member (with love and concern).   Tevye notices that Menachem-Mendl looks poor and ragged and he becomes sympathetic. He tells Menachem-Mendel that a “Jew must have hope” and “faith” that things will get better:

I stole a glance at his shabby clothes, patched in many places, the shoes almost worn through. “You can be sure that God will help you and things will get better. As it says in the Bible, All is vanity. Money,” I said, “is round, one day it rolls this way, another day it rolls away, so long as you live. The most important thing is faith. A Jew must have hope. (24)

Tevye sees that Yehupetz has not been good to Menachem-Mendl and offers him his home to come back to and heal:

“Listen to me, Menachem-Mendl,” I said, “come to my place for a day, and you can at least rest your bones. You’ll be my guest,” I said, “a welcome one too. My wife will be happy to have you”(25).

Menachem-Mendl agrees, goes home with Tevye, and brings “nachas”(joy) to him since there is nothing more pleasurable for Tevye than having a guest. And what is better than a guest who is family? The trust that circulates between them is a given.

We drove home together, and everyone was delighted to see him – a guest! Here was our own second cousin, no small matter. As they say, “One’s own are not strangers.” Golde’s (Tevye’s wife) grilling began: How are thigns in Kasrilevka? How is Uncle Boruch-Hersh?…Who got divorced? Who has given birth and who is expecting?” (25)

Tevye feeds and treats Menachem-Mendl like a Prince. Menachem-Mendl praises and thanks Tevye and his wife for the food and hospitality.   He swears that he has never experienced such kindness.

After they finish eating, Menachem-Mendl starts talking about what happened to him. He tells Tevye how he became rich and lost his money.   Tevye is impressed with Menachem-Mendl’s grasp of how the market works (26). As Menachem-Mendl manically goes on and on about his business dealings and the ways of the world, Tevye starts dreaming about money. The next morning, Menachem-Mendl props him up and makes Tevye an offer he can’t refuse. If he “partners up” with and gives Menachem-Mendl money, Menachem-Mendl assures Tevye that he will become a rich man.   But Menahcem-Mendl goes farther than that and appeals to Tevy’s desire for the good by telling Tevye that by doing so, Tevye will “save his life” and bring him “back from the dead.”

“You now have the chance, Reb Tevye, to make quite a few groschens and also save my life, literally bring me back from the dead.”(26).

Although Tevye tells him he doesn’t have much money, Menachem-Mendl pushes him to give more money than he can afford to give and to trust him fully on this “investment.”

“Really now,” he said, “are you telling me you can’t find a mere hundred, Reb Tevye, with your business, and your reputation, kayn eyen horeh?” (27)

All of the talking overwhelms Tevye, and he entrusts Menachem-Mendl. He starts having hope and convinces himself that Menachem-Mendl couldn’t be a liar. Menachem-Mendl could be a “heaven sent messenger” who could help Tevye live the rest of his life as a “respectable man.”

To make a long story short – why should I carry on? – I developed a yearning, and it was no laughing matter. Who could tell? I asked myself. Maybe he was a heaven-sent messenger…He didn’t strike me as a liar, making up tall tales out of his head. And what if things did turn around as he had said, and Tevye could become a bit of a mensch in his old age? How long could a person struggle and slave day after day, again and again the horse and wagon, again cheese and butter? (28)

Menachem-Mendl seals the deal by invoking God. He tells Tevye that God should “punish him” if he cheats Tevye:

“You can believe me, Reb Tevye,” he said. “I swear to you, let God punish me if I cheat you. I will honestly share everything with you.”(29)

After Menachem-Mendl gets the money and departs, Tevye starts dreaming of all the money he will have and how well the family will live:

We parted like the best of friends and kissed affectionately, as in usual between relatives. Standing by myself after he left, lively thoughts and daydreams entered my head, such sweet dreams that I wanted them never to end, to go on forever. (29)

Menachem-Mendl’s assurances and promises, which feed Tevye’s dreams of a better life are a prelude to the major betrayal.  Tevye’s wife starts worrying and, in the end, she is right. Everything falls to pieces.

Menachem-Mendl disappears and stops communicating with his “partner,” Tevye. Tevye starts realizing that he has been duped and starts, understandably, “going out of his mind.” This passage, of Tevye’s realization, are sad and shocking. They are very unique in Aleichem’s corpus of fiction, which is usually more upbeat and hopeful.

In short, a week passed, and two and three – no letter from my partner! I was going out of my mind, walking about in a daze, not knowing what to think. He could have just forgotten to write, I thought. He knew very well that we were waiting to hear from him. Then I began to wonder what I could do to him if he were to skim off the cream and tell me hadn’t earned anything. Would I call him a liar? I told myself it couldn’t be, it wasn’t possible. I treated the man like one of my own, been ready to take on his troubles. How could he play a trick like that on me?!…. A cold chill ran through my body. Old fool! I said to myself.   You made your bed, now lie in it, you ass! (30)

Following these disturbing revelations, Tevye’s wife prompts him to go to Yehupetz and find out what is going on. As he travels there, he starts imagining what may have happened. Since Tevye loves to only think good thought and would rather not dwell on the worst case scenario, he imagines the best case scenario and imagines what he will say when he confronts him (31-32).

He goes through the city in search of Menachem-Mendl. He doesn’t find him and nearly gives up.   But when he stops to look into one of the store windows he notices, in the reflection of the shop window, is the image of Menachem-Mendl!

My heart hurt when I saw him, so sorry did I feel for him! If ever I had an enemy, and if ever you had an enemy, may we hope to see them in the same state as Menachem-Mendl. His coat, his boots, were in terrible shape. (33)

When they turn to each other, we have an enigmatic scene and many questions that, as readers, we must think through. What will they say to each other? Will Tevye curse him or forgive him?   The representation of Menachem-Mendle as ragged and impoverished suggests an answer.

Menachem-Mendl, we learn, was “abashed to see me, we both stood as if frozen, unable to speak, just looking into each other’s eyes like tow roosters, as if to say, We’re both miserable and cleaned out. We might as well take tin cups and go from house to house! (33)

Menachem-Mendl appeals to Tevye’s emotions by making himself into a total schlimazel who is on the verge of suicide: “Reb Tevye! Without luck, a man shouldn’t have been born! Rather than living, it is better to hang!”(33).   But Tevye, against what one would expect, tells him that he is right: Menachem-Mendl is a disgrace and should be publically whipped. Tevye reminds Menachem-Mendl of how he didn’t just destroy him but his whole family!

“You took a household full of living souls, poor creatures, innocent as lambs, and slit their throats without a knife! God in heaven,” I said, “how can I face my wife and children? Go on, tell me, you slaughterer, swindler, thief!”(33, my emphasis)

Menachem-Mendl agrees that he is a thief, a slaughterer, and swindler.   He says that he deserves Gehennam (hell). Tevye says that Gehennam is “too good for you, fool”(33).   After saying this, Menachem-Mendl “lowers his head” and suggests that he may commit suicide.

But instead of walking away and letting him go, Tevye says he hears “every sigh and groan” he makes. “My heart went out to him”(33).

Tevye ends his tale by saying that he forgave him. He says that, if you think about it, “You aren’t entirely to blame.” Tevye can’t conceive of Menahcem Mendl as a swindler and thief! He also puts himself out there as a guilty party! “To say you did it on purpose would be foolish because we were equal partners, fifty-fifty”(34). After excusing him, Tevye offers to have a drink with him: “Come, my friend, let’s have some brandy!”

Looking back, Tevye notes how “that…is how the roof fell in, and with it all my dreams”(34). In other words, Tevye may have forgiven Menachem-Mendl but there was a price to pay: he can no longer, like a schlemiel, dream of something better. But there is more at stake, here. With the loss of dreams and hope, what happens to the Jew? Hasn’t Menachem-Mendl destroyed the fabric of Judaism? And was Tevye wrong for forgiving him? Tevye muses about the meaning of this experience and differentiates himself from the reader:

And what of hope and faith? On the contrary, the more troubles you have, the more faith you must have, and the poorer you are, the more hope you must have. Do you want any more proof?

But I think I’ve gone on too long today. It’s time to go and tend to my business. As you’ll no doubt say, “All men are false.” Every man has his burden. Be well and have a good life! (35)

These words – the last of the chapter, story – suggest that the reader can leave the story with a sense of cynicism at the betrayal perpetrated by Menachem-Mendl, a relative of Tevye, or let that it go.   Either way “every man has his burden,” and this burden – the burden of betrayal – is perhaps the biggest of all for humans.  Sholem Aleichem shows us how the greatest deeds of kindness of trust can be trounced by the people one would think one can trust. And this, for Aleichem, is not just the greatest challenge to Jewishness but the greatest challenge to humanity. The meaning of justice is at stake in this story. The reader may not agree with Tevye’s choice and would rather leave Menachem-Mendl to die, alone for the evil he had done.   Either way that is the “burden” of the reader or for anyone who has been betrayed by someone they trust.   While God may forgive man, man may not forgive someone who has destroyed his or her life and dreams. That type of forgiveness is a different matter.

And I’ll leave it there…..for you to decide. Would you forgive Menachem-Mendl?

Irony, Humility, and the Community of the Question: Leo Strauss on Platonic Irony and Being Literary


One of the things I love about the work of Leo Strauss is his suggestion that we read philosophers or religious thinkers like Plato or Maimonides as one would read a good novel.  One of Strauss’s most important essays is entitled the “Literary Character of The Guide to the Perplexed.”     And the core of his literary method is to make very close readings of the text so as to listen for contradictions and allusions to something other than what is said on the surface.  In other words, he looks for the esoteric by way of paying close attention to the exoteric aspects of the texts.  To be sure, the cracks on the surface always suggests deeper meanings.  And when these deeper meanings compete with the philosophical or religious meanings of the text, the reader is forced to consider which meaning is more important for the author.   Strauss, in truth, believes that true intelligence is to be found in a text that prompts the reader to ask the right questions.   He claims that the person who responds to these prompts in the text becomes a part of a “community.”    And for Strauss the literary device that prompts the most intelligent questions and fosters community is irony.  His reading of irony, to be sure, has us pay close attention to not just what irony is but what it does.  And in doing so, it also makes us play closer attention to his own text with all of its ironies and allusions.  By exposing us to such ironies, he exposes us to a world of rich textual and intellectual possibilities.

A text that demonstrates Strauss’s approach to irony is his essay “On Plato’s Republic,” which appears in his book The City of Man.  At the outset of the essay, Strauss plays the ironist by playing out the question of how one should read Plato.  First he makes a claim, then he negates it; but after doing this, he brings up the claim again, and negates it once again. This process does much to put our assumptions about Plato into question:

Whereas reading the Politics we hear Aristotle all the time, in reading the Republic we hear Plato never.  In none of his dialogues does Plato ever say anything. Hence, we cannot know from them what Plato thought…But this is a silly remark: everyone knows that Plato speaks through the mouth..of his Socrates, his Eleatic stranger, his Timaeus, and his Athenian stranger….But why does he use a variety of spokesmen? He does not tell us; no one knows the reason. (50)

After saying all this, Strauss plays on the reality of how he sounds in front of other scholars and he simply gives up.   He acts as if it makes sense to accept the assumption that Socrates is Plato’s spokesperson when we can clearly see that he is in conflict with this.  And this comes out in the sentence following his decision to conform:

We do not wish to appear more ignorant than every child and shall therefore repeat with childlike docility that the spokesperson for Plato is Socrates.  But it is one of Socrates’ peculiarities that he was the master of irony.  (50)

This “but” changes everything since it suggests that whatever Socrates says is not what appears to be.  So to with our reading of Plato: perhaps Socrates is teaching us is that although he appears to be Plato’s spokesman he’s really not.  Perhaps, Strauss muses, Plato didn’t have “a teaching” and never really “asserted anything”?   But, following this, he says that this can’t be the case.  It is “absurd” to think this.

However, the question lingers even after he states this.

The next paragraph, hinting at this lingering question, is all about irony.  Strauss defines it immediately: “Irony is a kind of dissimulation, or untruthfulness.  Aristotle therefore treats the habit of irony primarily as a vice”(51).  But Strauss doesn’t think that Aristotle is right:

Yet irony is the dissembling, not of evil actions or of vices, but rather of good actions or of virtues; the ironic man, in opposition to the boaster, understates his worth.  If irony is a vice, it is a graceful vice.  Properly used, it is not a vice at all.  (51)

Strauss’s qualification of Aristotle is telling.  It suggests that irony is a neutral term and that it has a “proper” use.   Citing Aristotle against Aristotle,  Strauss argues that “irony is…the noble dissimulation of one’s worth, one’s superiority”(51).  In other words, humility and irony do not contradict each other; in fact, they aid each other.

Strauss goes so far as to equate wisdom with irony and to argue that “it is humanity peculiar to the superior man”(51).  Moreover, irony is selective.  It speaks “differently to different kinds of people”(51).  And, at its best, it evokes questions rather than answers.  However, not everyone is prompted by this or that irony to ask questions; hence, it speaks differently to different people.

For this reason, Strauss suggests that we read Plato’s dialogues not in terms of their philosophical content, alone; rather, one should also read them in terms of who was being spoken to and who was not being spoken to in this or that irony:

One must postpone one’s concern with the most serious questions (the philosophical questions) in order to become engrossed in the study of merely a literary question.  (52)

And by doing this, we realize that there is a deep connection between what he calls the “literary question and the philosophical question”(52).  In other words, literature and philosophy can be brought together by way of the questions evoked by irony.

Strauss goes even further and argues that the “literary question, the question of presentation, is concerned with a kind of communication”(52).  And this communication, through irony, is a “means of living together.”  In other words, irony creates a kind of community of the question (to play on Derrida’s opening to his famous essay on Levinas, “Violence and Metaphysics”).

However, instead of taking this to the next level, Strauss keeps it within academia: “The study of the literary question is therefore an important part of the study of society”(52).  He goes on to argue that this is more than a simple literary question: it is a “quest for truth, a common quest, a quest taking place through communication.”  This suggests that literature and philosophy have a “common quest” for truth.  However Strauss redirects this by arguing that the “literary question properly understood is the question of the relation between society and philosophy.”

This redirection is telling since it suggests that by reading for irony in philosophy we can better address the “question of relation of society and philosophy.”   For Strauss, this implies that there is something about irony that is related to the question of community and truth.

What, in fact, is the true kind of community?

Strauss’s reading of irony suggests that by reading for irony and communicating this irony to others we create a kind of ironic community.  Although he doesn’t use these terms his work suggests a community of the question which is based on a “common quest for truth.”  Moreover, as we saw above, if done “properly,” this community will evince a kind of humility instead of a kind of a snarky kind of arrogance.

What I love about this meditation is the fact that it gives great weight to being a close reader of the text.  To be sure, Strauss gives the act of literary criticism vis-à-vis the religious or philosophical text the highest value possible since it is, for him, the basis of creating a community of the question based on the “common quest for truth.”

I think many of my colleagues and readers should take this lesson to heart since I have never seen a greater vindication of irony and its meaning in any text I have read.  (However, if I am missing something, please do let me know.)   And this bodes well for Schlemiel Theory since the readers of the schlemiel will understand that the ironies of this comic character also seem to be going in the same direction.  To be sure, we don’t read novels, stories, and poems on the schlemiel – with all of their ironies -because they are funny; we read them because we are in search of truth and we are looking to create a community of the question.

But can the fool(ish) text do Humanity any Good? Maimonides, Derrida, and Gasche (Part II)


Echoing Jacques Derrida’s reading of Stephen Mallarme’s “Mimique,” Gasche writes that:

If the mime of “Mimique” only imitates imitation, if he copies only copying, all he produces is a copy of a copy.  In the same manner, the hymen that comes to illustrate the theatrical space reduplicates nothing but the miming of the mime.  Miming only reference, but not a particular reference, Mallarme keeps the Platonic differential structure of mimesis intact while radically displacing it.  Instead of imitating, of referring to a referent within the horizon of truth, the mime mimes only other signs and their referring function.

Derrida, Gasche tells us, calls this miming of other signs re-marking.

Gasche notes that this remarking has the “structure of the hymen.”  But instead of focusing on a static structure, Gasche looks to depict its dynamic nature.  For this reason, Gasche focuses on “the manner” in which “the double structure of the hymen relates to itself.”

He calls this “manner” a “reflection without penetration.”

In other words, Gasche sees the mime and the reader as taking on a manner of reflection without penetration.  Gasche derives the evidence for this “manner” from a line in Derrida’s essay that depicts the double structure of the hymen in terms of a “violence without blows.” But what Gasche misses is that Derrida links this dynamic structure, which manifests a “violence without blows, or a blow without marks,” to a person who is “made to die or come laughing.”

In fact, for Derrida, remarking is an event.  The manner of reflection without penetration happens when there is a “violence without blows, or a blow without marks.”  When this happens, one “is made to die or come laughing.”   And this laughter is exemplary of what is, so to speak, remarkable.

With all the undecidability of its meaning, the hymen only takes place when it doesn’t take place, when nothing really happens, when there is an all-consuming consummation without violence, or a violence without blows, or a blow without marks…when the veil is without being, torn, for example, when one is made to die or come laughing (232)

Gasche fails to underscore that, for Derrida, the “manner” of the double movement is comic and perhaps tragic (as one is made to either “die” laughing or made to “come laughing”).   Derrida is denoting how the event of  “a reflection without penetration” is the event of laughter.

Perhaps this is because language, unlike God, does not show us, in a prescriptive manner, ethical or political ways of being; rather, the text shows us its absent-minded ways.  In fact, if the text prescribes anything, it prescribes the manner of absent-mindedness.  Or, as Derrida says in his essays in on the poet Edmond Jabes (in Writing and Difference), the text prescribes the detour and the ellipsis.

In the same essay on Jabes, Derrida notes how the text prescribes exile from God. Unlike Maimonides, Derrida would say that the text does not prescribe any ethical or political ways of being.  The text doesn’t perfect man.   While Maimonides would say that Moses was exiled from knowing God and having a “penetrating reflection,” he would not say that God only prescribed exile for Moses.  In fact, as Maimonides argues, God prescribed His ways to Moses for emulation, imitation, and practice.

In contrast, if we reread Gasche by way of Derrida’s own remarks, we can say that the manner of the reader and the text is the manner of a schlemiel.  This manner is prescribed.  Unlike the text (which is unaware of itself), the attentive reader is aware of its absent-mindedness.  If one reflects on the text’s schlemiel-ish “reflection without penetration,” the attentive reader will be conscious or become conscious.  And this, Derrida might say, would happen when one laughs.

But are we who laugh at the foolish text, for this reason, better (or superior)?  As I have shown in other blog entries, this is exactly what Baudelaire proposes at the end of his essay on laughter.   However, this is a conclusion which, as I also have shown, Paul deMan disagreed with.   In fact, if anything, the consciousness that comes out of this, for deMan, leads to madness and self-destruction not superiority.

Would Derrida agree with deMan?  Does the absent-minded schlemiel text, and the reader’s attendant “reflection without penetration,” lead to vertigo, madness, and self-destruction?  Should we read Derrida’s comment that one may “die of laughter” in lieu of deMan?

By virtue of its inability to know itself, by virtue of its being a “reflection without penetration,” the text presents itself as absent-minded.  Recognizing what the text doesn’t see, Derrida seems to be suggesting that the reader will either “die” of laughter or “come to” laughter.  Why?  Because he or she realizes that the only thing he or she can follow is an opaque and aleatory text which, in its absentmindedness, dynamically flows, warps, and weaves in different directions, one will either die of laughter or come to laugh.

Regardless, one laughs at the text’s absent-mindedness.  Perhaps one also laughs at the fact that one’s “reflection without penetration” on the text is also risible.  But in knowing that language doesn’t have a meaning or know of any, are we, in a deManian sense, mad?

Derrida’s text implies that, upon reading the hymen, we are either made to die or “come laughing.”  Derrida seems to be suggesting that we either affirm this “reflection without penetration” with a yes, and laugh or we don’t.  This, in fact, is a suggestion he makes on his essay “Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce.”  Without such a suggestion, it would seem that deMan and Derrida would be in agreement: the manner of the text would be a manner of madness and self-destruction.  In other words, the person who reflects on what deMan calls the “irony of ironies” would die laughing or go mad.

Derrida, in that essay (which I will return to in an upcoming blog entry) suggests that we should describe and affirm the reflection without penetration; and, in doing so, say yes to it.  This affirmation, this yes-saying, in a Nietzschean and Joycean spirit, is a prescription of sorts.   Like Sancho Panza who follows Don Quixote on his Journeys, the postmodern saint says yes to following the aberrant and absent-minded ways of the text.  Instead of Moses following the ways of God, we have a much more secular (and risible) model of observance.

So, here’s the question: Do we – like Sancho Panza – learn and repeat the schlemiel’s manner?  Is this, according to Derrida, our postmodern prescription and destiny?  Is this our postmodern ethic?  And will the foolish text do humanity any good?

Since the text has the structure of the hymen, Gasche would say that the repetition of the text (and the “reflection without penetration”) is inescapable.  The text repeats itself and we repeat the text repeating itself.  That’s it.  Nothing more nor less.

But what is the point of the text or our lives if they always remain caught up in an endless textual ellipsis?  Again: What good will this do for humanity?

The structure of the schlemiel, its manner, for Gasche and Derrida, would be an endless reflection on the surface.  It would be a manner of moving across an endless surface or as Deleuze might say, a thousand plateaus.  And in response to it we will, as Derrida –that is, Rabbi Derissa – de (of) the risus (laughter) – claims, either die laughing or come laughing.

(Enter laughter)

But can the fool(ish) text do Humanity any Good? Maimonides, Derrida, and Gasche (Part I)


In his book Of Minimal Things: Studies on the Notion of Relation, Rodolphe Gasche notes, in one of his readings of Jacques Derrida, that a text, like a person, can have a manner.

A manner is a way of acting or bearing.  A manner can also be read as a style.

What is the meaning of Gasche’s description?

This description of the text as a manner has religious resonance.  The reader, in an exegetical manner, must figure out his or her bearing in relation to the text and its bearing.  How does the text appear to the reader and how, in turn, does the reader present him or herself to the text?  Can the text teach us about how to bear ourselves or is it devoid of any such prescriptions for action?

Gasche suggests that the relation to the text is not by way of knowledge so much as by a relation to its way of being (its manner).  Textual relation bears two questions: How do we relate to the text and how does it relate to us?  Does the text turn away from us, as God turns away from Moses in the moment of revelation?

I can’t help but hear Maimonides reading of Prophetic Revelation in Gasche’s claim. In Part I, Chapter 54 of The Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides discusses how, when Moses requests to see God’s essence, he sees, instead, God’s actions.  In other words, Moses , according to Maimonides, was only allowed to see God’s manner of being:

When Moses asked for knowledge of the attributes and asked for forgiveness for the nation, he was given a favorable answer with regard to their being forgiven.  Then he asked for the apprehension of His essence, may He be exalted.  This is what he means when he says, “Show me, I pray You, Your glory” (Ex. 33:18), whereupon he received a (favorable) answer with regard to what he had asked for first – namely, “Show me Your ways.”

Although Moses didn’t learn of God’s essence, he was shown God’s “ways” so that he could teach and practice them.  He was given what Gasche would call – in his essay on Derrida – a “reflection without penetration.” Nonetheless, he is given a manner that can make life better for himself and for the Jewish people.  To be sure, for Maimonides, the prophet is a political leader and a philosopher.  Most importantly, Moses, “the greatest of all prophets,” is the only prophet who is a lawgiver.  All three are related, in some way, to God’s ways or manners, which Moses practices.  Practice, it seems, trumps reflection into the essence of things.  The manner of God, God’s ways, bear themselves to Moses.  Not God’s essence.

Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, and the later Martin Heidegger, have taught us, with respect to language, that if it doesn’t have an essence that can be known (like God cannot be known), then all one can know of language is not what language is but what language does.  We can only know or describe how language does things.

Maimonides notes how Moses can perfect himself and be the best leader and prophet if, and only if, he imitates what God does – which can only be found by following God’s ways.  Maimonides sees Moses’ practical knowledge as being based on divine contemplation of God’s ways.  Such contemplation can foster love and fear and, most importantly, prompts imitation that promotes ethical and political well being.

The imitation of these manners or ways would do humanity good.  Maimonides tells us that such imitation will help man to perfect himself; moreover, without imitaiton, society cannot perfect itself.  Without a teacher of God’s ways, without a leader who pursues the ways of justice, society will degenerate.

Can we say the same for language?  Can or does language as such – language and its ways -do humanity any good?  Can language help?

Heidegger, near the end of his life, focused solely on “listening” to language.  And Benjamin wrote several essays and notes on language.   Derrida and Giorgio Agamben, amongst others, also call on us to pay close attention to language.

For them, its an imperative to pay close attention to the ways of language.  But do they do this because they believe that following the ways of language will do humanity any good?  Are they miming religion, so to speak, while emptying it of its content?  Instead of the manner and ways of God, do we study and practice, instead, the ways of language?  Are these, as Derrida might say, the way one would practice a “religion without religion?”

To answer these questions, let’s play a game.  I’ll imagine what would be implied if we read the relation of the reader to the text as we would read the relationship of Moses to God.  To know what to do, to act or imitate the ways of the text, we would have to know what a text is doing and how it is doing it:

What is the manner of the text?

Can we learn justice from the ways of language? Or do we just learn its ways?  Are we in the position to imitate its ways or is this a ridiculous question reserved only for religion and theology not language as such?

Reading Gasche, we should like to know if we are going to imitate the text so as to perfect ourselves and society; otherwise, Gasche’s language suggests that we reflect on a manner that is devoid of any ethical or political content.  Does the act of reflection suffice?  Does it help humanity?

If ethics is based on actions and not on knowledge, as Levinas points out in a reading he makes of Maimonides (in one of his essays on Judaism), for language to be ethical, it would have to be prescriptive in some way.   Otherwise, its “manner” would have no ethical content.

If we take Jacques Derrida seriously, we would have to say that a text has the manner of the schlemiel.  It does not know what it is doing.   And language likes to dream and get distracted.  A text can be absent-minded.  But can a text, like a schlemiel, fail?

How would it fail?  In what manner would the text, as schlemiel, fail?

Roldophe Gasche gives us a clue.  In his book, Of Minimal Things: Studies on the Notion of Relation, Gashe writes of Derrida’s notion of mimesis.  He reads mimesis through Derrida’s essay on Mallarme entitled “The Double Session.”  There, Gasche looks into the relationship between the text and reflection.  He argues that Derrida’s notion of textual mimesis shows has the manner of a mystical and absentminded kind of consciousness: a “reflection without penetration.”

Gasche’s notion of a “reflection without penetration” is really another name for what is commonly called “absent-mindedness.”

How, according to Gasche, does one, along with the text, become absent-minded?

Is the text, as Derrida might say, always-already absent minded?  And is our manner of reading, always already, absentminded? Through Gasche’s reading of Derrida, I would like to briefly touch on these questions.

To be continued, in tomorrow’s blog…..